Imagine, if you will, that someone walks up to you and says, “4+4=8. I’m just telling it like it is.”
Or, “Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky. I’m just telling it like it is.”
Or, “George Washington was our first President. I’m just telling it like it is.”
People Don’t Say “I’m Just Telling It Like It Is” in Such Contexts
People do not use the phrase “I’m just telling it like it is” in situations like the ones above, namely because pretty much everyone knows these things.
You don’t have to say “I’m just telling it like it is” about things which people already know that’s the way it is.
How Do People Actually Use the Phrase?
Rather, people tend use the phrase, “I’m just telling it like it is in situations like this:
“That is an ugly dress. I’m just telling it like it is.“
“You will never be a writer. I’m just telling it like it is.“
“People from that country are all criminals and rapists. I’m just telling it like it is.”
What the Phrase “I’m Just Telling It Like It Is” Really Means
In all of these situations, people say, “I’m just telling it like it is” precisely because what they are saying is in fact, not how it is. Or at least, it is not clear to everyone else that this is how it is.
When people say “I’m just telling it like it is” in situations like this, they are implying something like this: “What I am saying is harsh, and it will upset people, but it is the truth that people need to hear.”
Badges of Honor
In this case, the phrase “I’m just telling it like it is” becomes a badge of honor indicating that someone is courageous for speaking hard truths that people do not want to hear.
The idea is that someone is brave enough to say things that other people are not courageous enough to say for fear that that it might upset someone.
And it may be, indeed, that some people are being courageous and honorable when they say, “I’m just telling it like it is”. This, however, is not always the case.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses the virtue of courage, and he suggests that sometimes when we think we are being courageous, were are actually being reckless.*
One of the main reasons I am writing this post is because I have become really interested over the years in discussions about politically correct language.
Especially in the recent election, many politicians, including the President, made very public the fact that they were flouting politically correct language and being a straight-shooter–just telling it like it is.
But I think we need to be more careful both about using the phrase “I’m just telling it like it is” and what we assume when someone else uses it.
After all, when people say things that upset other people, it can be for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with courage and honor.
1. The person is saying things that are prejudice, racist, and sexist and wants to disguise this fact.
2. The person is making outrageous and potentially false claims and does not want to justify or explain these claims.
3. The person is saying cruel things to humiliate and dominate people he or she is speaking to.
Anyone Can Say Upsetting Things
Upsetting people with hard words is no badge of honor in itself. I mean, anyone with a misanthropic attitude and lack of impulse control can anger people with ill-advised repartee.
Any dunderhead can upset and offend people.
There is certainly virtue in speaking the truth at an appropriate moment, even if it is an unpopular truth. This is especially the case if it is done with the intention of protecting someone.
Some Examples of When It’s Good To Speak Harsh Truths
For instance, when we tell a friend that the person they are with is abusing them. Or when we tell a friend that the choices they are making are leading them down a dangerous path.
These are instances in which what we say might upset the person we are talking to, but they are truths that person probably needs to hear.
So, what is the difference between a person who speaks hard truths as an act of bravery and one who is just being reckless and shooting off his or her mouth?
Here are three ways to tell:
1. First, the brave person is willing to present evidence to support his claims.
The impulsive person usually cannot be bothered to provide strong evidence supporting his claims or is insecure about people questioning him.
2. Second, the brave person is open to examining evidence that contradicts his claims.
The impulsive person cannot tolerate contradiction and assumes most if not all counter-examples are wrong or are based on lies.
3. Third, the brave person is willing to discuss his claims with other people.
The impulsive person likes to shut down dialogue through bullying and insults (because any prolonged dialogue will likely expose the impulsive nature of the claims).
If someone is brave enough to speak hard truths, he should be brave enough to hear the hard truth: “You are wrong about that.”
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*See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Books 2:9 and Book 3:6-7. You can read Nicomachean Ethics here.
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